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Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Still from the film Black Mother Black Daughter, 1989, directed by Sylvia D. Hamilton and Claire Prieto
28 minutes

Sylvia D. Hamilton was born in Beechville, Nova Scotia, a Halifax community first settled by Black Refugees from the War of 1812. She began her career working with students in an alternative school in Halifax, after which she moved to Ottawa to take a position with the Company of Young Canadians (CYC) as the Assistant Director of Communications. Her abiding interest in media and communications led her into radio journalism: she was a full-time radio news reporter and announcer at a private radio station in Halifax and later freelanced for CBC Radio.


In the mid-1980s Hamilton was part of an ad hoc women and film group in Halifax whose members wanted to make films by and about women. Her proposed documentary about Black mothers and daughters, selected and supported by the group, was pitched to and accepted by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Hamilton’s film Black Mother Black Daughter, co-directed with Claire Prieto (b.1945), was released by the NFB in 1989.


Still from the film Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, 1992, directed by Sylvia D. Hamilton, 28 minutes, National Film Board of Canada, Ottawa.

In 1992 Hamilton’s second film, Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, was released by the NFB to critical and popular acclaim, winning the Canada Award at the 1994 Gemini Awards as well as the 1994 Maeda Prize from NHK-Japan Broadcasting. The film documented the activities of the Cultural Awareness Youth Group at St. Patrick’s High School in Halifax, a group of Black students working to build awareness and pride in their culture in an all-white environment. Hamilton directed ten other films, including Portia White: Think on Me (2000) and The Little Black School House (2007), and runs the documentary film production company Maroon Films Inc. in Halifax. She is also an Inglis Professor Emeritus at the University of King’s College in Halifax.


In addition to filmmaking, Hamilton is a poet and essayist with two books of poetry and many essays and articles to her credit. In 2013 she began showing her “Excavations” series of exhibitions, “an adaptive multi-media installation in which the artist presents ideas of place, memory and history through selections of text and objects relative to the space in which it is displayed.  Hamilton has mounted such “excavations” across Canada, including as part of the nationally touring exhibition Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, organized by the Royal Ontario Museum in 2018.


Still from the film Portia White: Think on Me, 2000, directed by Sylvia D. Hamilton, 50 minutes.
Installation view of Sylvia D. Hamilton, Here We Are Here, 2013–17, in Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, 2019, photograph by RAW Photography.


Hamilton has won numerous awards, including Nova Scotia’s premier art prize, the Portia White Prize (2002), which celebrates the entirety of an artist’s career. She was given the National Film Board Kathleen Shannon Documentary Award for Black Mother Black Daughter (1990). In addition to its Gemini Award and Maeda Prize, Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia also earned the Rex Tasker Award for Best Atlantic Canadian Documentary at the Atlantic Film Festival (1993). In 2019 she received the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media and the Documentary Organization of Canada’s DOC Luminary Award, and in 2023 she was appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia. She is the recipient of honorary degrees from three Canadian universities.


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